It was a long and VERY special day at LeLacheur Park . . .
Several hours after catching baseballs (and a softball!) dropped from a helicopter hovering hundreds of feet above the field, I was back for an actual game.
Now, just to be clear, I don’t count minor league baseballs in my collection, but I still wanted to snag as many as possible. At least that’s how I felt when I arrived at the stadium and started making my way around the perimeter toward the outfield. Here’s what it looked like outside the 1st base side:
As I approached the right field foul pole, I noticed that a small section of the wall had a narrow gap at the bottom:
It was barely wide enough for me to fit my tiny camera in there and take a photo. Here’s what it captured:
It was only four o’clock, and the game wasn’t scheduled to begin until 7:05pm, so I had lots of time to spare.
Here’s what the area behind the right field foul pole looked like:
Not bad. I figured I’d snag a few home run balls on that patch of grass during BP, but I was especially interested in seeing the area behind the power alleys.
Here’s what it looked like in straight-away right field:
In the photo above, do you see the sign with captions and old photos of baseball players? Here’s a closeup (which made me laugh like hell):
Seriously, WTF is up with that guy? And what’s with calling him “A Lowell’s fielder”? Double facepalm.
Anyway, take a look at who was with me as I wandered outside the stadium:
Here’s the area behind the left field foul pole (looking toward center field):
It was going to be a disaster for catching home runs. Not only was it impossible to see inside the stadium, but the walkway was too close to the wall, and the wall was too high. Still, I thought it might be fun to scavenge for balls in the woods.
It was about 4:15pm when Ben (who writes for minorleaguebaseball.com) headed inside the stadium. Robin, meanwhile, led the way for a mini-nature walk. Here she is waving from below:
By the time I made it down to that spot and took a photo of the left field wall . . .
. . . she was already hanging out near the Merrimack River. Here she is photographing a tree that she claimed had been gnawed on by a beaver:
When she first said that, I thought it was pretty funny. I mean, as a lifelong resident of New York City, I’d only heard that word used as a derogatory term for the female anatomy. It had never really occurred to me until THAT MOMENT that there was, in fact, an actual animal called a “beaver.”
Moments later, I ran into a 60-ish-year-old guy, who was scouring the terrain for baseballs. Here I am talking to him:
While he told stories about seeing old-time players in now-defunct stadiums, Robin was taking photos like this:
Twenty minutes later, I saw another middle-aged baseball scavenger and thought, “To hell with it.” I knew I could’ve beaten them out for every ball that sailed into the forest, but I decided not to for these reasons:
1) They looked like regulars, and I didn’t want to invade their turf.
2) I didn’t want to get poison ivy or come face-to-face with one of those so-called beavers.
3) Robin invited (read: pressured) me to join her for a longer walk.
We found our way to the left field foul line and peeked through a fence:
Then we walked away from the stadium. And kept walking. And walking. And eventually ended up here:
It was a hydroelectric dam.
I could write an entire blog entry about it with dozens of photos, but I’m only going to share two more for now. Here’s one . . .
. . . and here’s another:
The whole time we were there, I kept thinking about all the balls that I might’ve been chasing in the woods, but I have to say . . . the dam was pretty cool and much more scenic/memorable. (I’m not going to call it “romantic,” because that’s just stupid.)
It was a little past 5pm by the time we made it back to the stadium, which meant I had probably missed the first few groups of BP. I passed by the wall with the gap at the bottom and stuck my camera through for another sneak peek and . . .
. . . what?!
The field was practically empty, and (as you can see above) the batting cage had been moved to the left field foul line.
I don’t know what the hell happened, but it was quite disappointing. I know I said that I didn’t really care about snagging baseballs, but once I lost the opportunity to do so, I really missed it. If nothing else, I just wanted to experience one group of BP at LeLacheur Park to see how things played out — but it wasn’t meant to be.
Look how crowded it was half an hour before the stadium opened:
For those who don’t know, LeLacheur Park is the home of the Lowell Spinners, a short-season Class A team in the New York-Penn League. Minor league teams (especially at that level) normally don’t have dozens of people waiting to get in that early, but this game was special. It was Dom DiMaggio Bobblehead Day. More on that in a moment.
Robin and I headed to the will-call window and picked up the six free tickets that Jon Boswell, the Spinners’ director of media relations, had left for me:
We didn’t need nearly that many tickets, and in fact, we really didn’t need any because a Spinners intern named Tyler Massey met us in the team store and escorted us into the stadium. On the way inside, he offered me one of the Bobbleheads.
“Seriously?” I asked. “I didn’t think you guys would give that stuff to fans with comp tickets.”
Tyler shrugged. “Normally we don’t,” he said, and then he offered one to Robin as well.
Here’s what the Bobblehead looks like . . .
. . . and you can win it by making a donation to my charity fundraiser. Do you remember the blog entry about the prizes that I posted several months ago? Add these Bobbleheads to the list. I’ll be giving both of them away.
Here’s a photo of me with Tyler in the Spinners’ front office:
Why am I holding up a copy of the Spinners program? Because I’m in it. Check it out:
Did you notice who wrote that article? That’s right: Tyler Massey. He had interviewed me several weeks earlier, so as you can imagine, it was great to finally meet him in person.
Tyler led us up into the seats and left us there. (Everything’s so laid-back in the minor leagues. I love it.) He had to get back to work in the ticket office, so for the next 20 minutes or so, Robin and I hung around and explored.
Here’s a photo of the concourse that runs behind the bleachers on the 3rd base side:
Foul ball heaven!
Robin got a beer. I peeked inside the radio booth:
Then we wandered down to the 1st base dugout, where Ben and Jon were chatting:
Did I mention that everything was really laid-back?
At 6pm, the stadium opened to the general public, and the seats started filling up:
Robin and I were chillin’ in the shade and minding our own business when we happened to glance up at the scoreboard and see this:
Okay, so they spelled my name wrong, but hey, it was still awesome to see myself up there.
Less than a minute later, Robin and I noticed this . . .
. . . and then this:
(She’s the one who took those photos.)
I have no words. All I can say is that the guy’s name is Dan Gulbransen. He’s an outfielder for the Tri-City ValleyCats.
At around 6:40pm, several Spinners players signed autographs on the 1st base side. I didn’t get anyone to sign anything. Instead, I just got up close and took photos like this:
The player pictured above is a 2nd-round draft pick (and native New Yorker) named Williams Jerez.
Look where I was five minutes later:
Jon Boswell had arranged for me to throw out the ceremonial first pitch — or rather one of several “first” pitches, and I’m thrilled to say that it was well documented. Here’s a photo that Robin took from the 3rd base side as I went into my wind-up:
Here’s a photo that Ben Hill took from the 1st base side as I was stepping into it . . .
. . . and here’s a shot by Spinners photographer John Corneau that was taken from the field:
How cool is THAT?! (Okay, so my name was still spelled wrong, but hey, at least I didn’t bounce the pitch — something I was very concerned about given the fact that I didn’t get to warm up.)
Here I am shaking hands with the player who caught my pitch:
At the time, I didn’t know who he was. Turns out it was a first-round draft pick named Brian Johnson.
Here’s another photo of us, taken by John Corneau:
Allow me to point out two things in the photo above:
1) Johnson is holding Williams Jerez’s glove. Look closely at the stitching on the thumb and you’ll see for yourself.
2) I got to keep the ball. Here’s a closer look at it:
While I chased foul balls for the first few innings, Robin was sitting and watching the game and taking quality photos:
My foul ball pursuit was unsuccessful because (a) I was IN the stadium and (b) most of the balls were flying OUT of the stadium. I kind of predicted that, but held firm with my strategy because I actually wanted to watch the game. What a concept!
At some point in the 3rd inning, a left-handed batter hit a foul ball out of the park that was retrieved by this guy:
That guy was an usher — it said so on the back of his shirt in big/capital letters — so I asked him nicely if he could PLEASE toss the ball up to me . . . and he did:
(Even at a minor league game, I wasn’t going to ask a fan for a baseball. I have my standards, and since the yellow-shirted man was employed by the Spinners, I felt it was okay to make a request.)
Several minutes later, a right-handed batter hit a foul ball that sailed out of the stadium and rolled underneath this white minivan:
I waited to see all the people chasing after it . . . and I waited some more . . . and some more. Half a minute passed, and no one had gone looking for the ball.
I headed to the press box and spent half an inning with Ben. Here he is focusing on the game:
Jon was there, so I asked him about the Spinners’ re-entry policy.
“There is none,” he said.
“What does that mean? That I’m not allowed to go out and come back in?”
“You can do whatever you want,” he said, practically laughing at me for asking such a dumb question. “Just let the usher know what you’re doing.”
Five minutes later, I went and found Robin and told her about the ball that had rolled underneath the car. Then, with her blessing, I headed down to the gate, approached the yellow-shirted usher, and asked if I could leave and come back.
“What for?” he asked testily, eyeing my glove. “I just gave you a ball.”
“Well, I saw one roll under a car on the first base side and–”
“It’s gone,” he said. “There are guys out here all the time looking for balls, and if you get another, ya gotta give it to a kid.”
“Okay,” I continued, “well, I thought I might just hang out here for a bit and see if I can catch one that flies out.”
“If you want to go out,” he said, “that’s fine, but once you’re back in, you’re IN. I’m not gonna let you keep coming and going all night.”
I resisted the urge to tell him that I had SIX unscanned tickets in my backpack and that I could’ve exited and re-entered without his permission every inning for the rest of the game. Instead, I played along and said okay. Then I walked around the corner to the white minivan and looked underneath:
Did you see the ball in the previous photo? Here’s another shot of it:
It was just sitting there out in the open, waiting for me to come rescue it.
In case you’re wondering, here’s what the stadium looked like from that spot:
This was my view to the right . . .
. . . and to the left:
As you can see, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot of competition.
I decided to stay outside for a couple innings, during which NO foul balls flew out of the stadium. Since I couldn’t see the field, I had to listen carefully to the public address announcer; every time I heard him say, “Now batting . . . ” I scanned my rosters for the batter’s name to see if he was right- or left-handed. It was a fun challenge.
When I headed back toward the gate on the 3rd base side . . .
. . . the usher asked me about the ball underneath the car.
I shrugged and said, “Someone else must’ve grabbed it.”
“I told you,” he said, “there are guys like you out here all the time.”
While I was outside the stadium, I missed seeing Ben dressed up as a donut with gigantic boxing gloves:
I also missed the moonrise and sunset . . .
. . . but it was worth it. (Robin took those photos, FYI.) Who knows if/when I’ll see another game at this stadium?
Here’s where Robin and I sat for the final few innings:
Inside the stadium, the ushers never checked our tickets. Everyone, for the most part, was free to wander wherever the hell they wanted, and you know what? That’s how it oughta be. Thumbs-up to the Spinners for being so friendly and accommodating. This was one of the best baseball days of my life.
After the game (which the ValleyCats won, 2-0), I got a ball at the dugout from one of the players and got recognized by the guy below in the purple shirt:
His name is Michael, and his friends standing around (from right to left) are Joe, Dan, and (with his head chopped off) Sean. They were all really cool, and we talked for at least five minutes. The ushers didn’t kick us out because every little kid in the stadium was getting to run the bases. Maybe I *should* start going to minor league games. I’ve been to a handful over the years, and the atmosphere is always great. People really have FUN because the home teams truly care about the overall experience. I’ve found that the opposite is true at a disturbingly high percentage of major league stadiums, especially the two that are closest to home, but let’s not dwell on negativity. As I said, this was one of the best days in baseball that I’d ever had — and it wasn’t done yet. Scroll back up for a moment and take another look at the first photo that showed my name on the scoreboard. Do you see the “train” on the warning track? Kids get to ride it before and after games, and guess what? So did we. Here’s a photo of Ben and Robin in one of the “cars”:
The Spinners let us take the train for a joyride around the warning track. Ben drove for the first half . . .
. . . and then Robin took over:
HOW FUN IS THAT?!?!
I basically got to hang out all day at a minor league ballpark and do wacky/ridiculous things. Life is good.
This was the view from the train in the right field corner:
By the time we completed our lap around the field, we were some of the last people in the stadium. Without fear of getting arrested for trespassing, I wandered out onto the infield dirt and got a goodbye photo with head groundskeeper Jeff Paolino:
He had played a huge role in my helicopter stunt, not only by giving permission for the helicopter to land on his field, but then graciously/expertly fixing all the baseball-sized craters. Jeff is a good dude, and I wish we’d gotten to hang out more. Same goes for Jon Boswell . . .
. . . who deserves as much credit as anyone. At this point in my life, there aren’t too many baseball “firsts” left for me to experience, but Jon helped me knock a few off the list. I can’t wait to see all these guys again when I return to Lowell to try to catch a baseball dropped from 1,000-plus feet.